Monthly Archives: May 2017

Formulaic Christianity

May 2017 Credo

An Amusing Incident in Acts 19

Acts 19:11-20 recounts a somewhat amusing incident which took place in the city of Ephesus in the first century. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had a powerful ministry in this place, one which involved amazing miracles.

This demonstration of power greatly impressed some of the Jewish exorcists who were working in Ephesus. They wished to tap on this same source of power for their own ministry. So they tried to copy what Paul did, casting out demons “in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches” (v.13).

On one occasion, this approach backfired dramatically. The evil spirit which the seven sons of Sceva were trying to cast out was smart enough to discern that these exorcists were using the names of Jesus and Paul in an impersonal and mechanical way. The spirit’s answer to the seven exorcists was quite priceless, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” These seven sons of Sceva were then mauled so severely by the man with the evil spirit that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding (v.15-16).

What was wrong with how these Jewish exorcists treated the Christian faith? They saw Christianity only as a means to get what they wanted—power for their ministry. They discerned that the way to tap on this power was to depend on a formula: Just copy Paul’s actions.

What the exorcists had was a sorcerer’s view of the Christian faith. A sorcerer back in the first century sought to manipulate the various supernatural powers by learning the correct rituals, like chanting the correct words and using the correct paraphernalia. Once they have mastered these rituals, the sorcerers could repeat it as a formula, and the supernatural powers were bound to respond in the expected way.

We are told in Acts 19 that even those who have become Christians were not exempt from the pervasive influence of sorcery. When news about what happened to the seven sons of Sceva spread, Christians who had continued to practice sorcery confessed their wrongdoing and presented their scrolls for burning. The value of the surrendered scrolls was “fifty thousand drachmas” (v.19), which is a few million dollars in today’s terms. This shows how many Christians in one city alone had tried to blend their practice of sorcery with their embrace of the Christian faith.

The Sorcerer’s Perspective is Still Alive

What about us today? A careful observation of the Christian scene in Singapore reveals that very little has changed, and the sorcerer’s appropriation of Christianity is still very much alive amongst us.

Many Christians today want something from God very badly—it might be good health, success in our studies and careers, or the fulfilment of a long-held wish. Like the sorcerers of old, we try to manipulate God into giving us these things.

The only difference is that the things we do to induce God to act are not pagan chants and rituals, but “Christian” activities. So, for example, we might put more money into the offering bag, or devote more time to prayer (sometimes using words or sentences which we think have a special magical power), or try to behave well for the week, all in the hope that God will notice our contribution and fulfil the desires of our hearts.

Some Christian preachers actually encourage such an attitude by teaching that God has promised to reward us many times over for our faithfulness to him (in terms of our monetary offerings and righteous living) with health, wealth and other indicators of worldly success. The net result is a reduction of the Christian faith to a series of formulas: If we do this, God will be obliged to do that, and we can be sure of getting what we want.

Why is this tendency to reduce Christianity to formulas so enduring, that it has persisted from the first century to our era? One reason is that formulas give us a sense of much-needed control amidst the seemingly arbitrary vicissitudes of life. They reassure us that we are still in charge, because we can ensure that life will turn out a certain way if we behave in a certain way. They comfort us by telling us that we have an “inside track” to success, guaranteed by the One who is in perfect control of all things.

The Gospel of Self-Fulfilment vs. the Gospel of Christianity

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that such comfort rests on a distinctly non-Christian foundation. It is comfort derived from the assurance of self-fulfilment, and the gospel (or “good news”) of self-fulfilment is very different from the gospel of Christianity. The former exalts the self to the highest place, and subjugates God to a secondary role—as a means to the self-actualisation we seek.

God, moreover, plays this secondary role very well: He is as controllable and predictable as a vending machine. We just have to do the prescribed “thing”, and the desired blessing is bound to be dispensed. This gospel of self-fulfilment is ultimately a sorcerer’s dream come true—we have found a way to manipulate no lesser being than the almighty God himself (who turns out to be not so almighty after all).

The true gospel of Christianity presents an almost diametrically opposite vision: One where we die to our self-centred natures, and then rise again with Christ to a new life in which God takes centre stage. It is not about us anymore—not our self-fulfilment or self-actualisation. It is rather about the fulfilment of God’s will, and we joyfully take our place at the periphery to serve as instruments given the privilege of contributing to this fulfilment.

Paradoxically, it is only when this happens; when we truly die to ourselves and live to serve God, that we find true self-fulfilment. It is true self-fulfilment because we truly fulfil the purposes for which we were created—the worship of God. It is only in this type of self-fulfilment that we find real and enduring joy and peace. Did not Jesus teach that it is only the one who loses his life for Jesus’ sake who truly finds it (Matt 16:25)?

One of the most urgent needs for our churches in Singapore today is to rediscover a right relationship with God—one where he is at the centre, and not us. Too many of us gladly take on the label “Christian” and go through with enthusiasm all the prescribed Christian activities. But deep inside, we could well be doing all these with a sorcerer’s motivation.

We badly need a rediscovery of the fear of God. We need, in other words, an experience akin to what the Church in Ephesus went through in the first century. At the close of our narrative in Acts 19, we read of the people of that city being “seized with fear” upon knowing what had happened to the seven sons of Sceva. The result was that “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour” (v. 17), and the people repented of their attempts to syncretise sorcery and Christianity. By God’s grace, may such repentance from our formulaic Christianity sweep across our land as well.



Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

The Betrayal of Medicine

May 2017 Pulse

One of the reasons that the National Council of Churches of Singapore gave for rejecting physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its 2008 statement is that these actions are “against the very ethos of medical practice”.

The betrayal of medicine’s noblest purpose that the growing acceptance of PAS and euthanasia signifies and accentuates is of course the result of many different but profoundly related developments.

The first of these is the subtle shift of the focus of medicine away from the patient.

According to Edmund Pellegrino, the Hippocratic Oath that has served European and American physicians since the dawn of modern medicine is now under attack both from without and within the medical profession. This is because some are of the view that the values it upholds are unable to address the complex ethical issues presented by emerging medical technologies.

But the rejection of the patient-centric tradition exemplified by the Hippocratic Oath exacts a heavy price because it changes the very character of medicine itself.

As philosopher Dianne Irving has rightly observed, once this tradition was weakened, “bioethics began to replace it with medicine practiced for the greater good of society rather than for the individual patient. That threatens patient welfare and denigrates medicine into a business rather than a profession”.

Another possible contribution to medicine’s betrayal is the secularisation of ethics, as a result of which moral reasoning is bereft of the very assumptions and principles that are supposed to govern it.

To be sure, some ethicists – like Leon Kass and Gilbert Meilaender from the Jewish and Christian traditions respectively – still regard human life as sacred and insist that physicians should be committed to the bodily life of their patients. But such views are gradually going out of vogue, supplanted by a utilitarian ethic couched in heady rhetoric about “the greater good” of society, and about individual autonomy and rights.

Edmund Pellegrino and David Thomasma offer a penetrating diagnosis of the modern predicament in medicine as well as in other fields when they write: “Much of the moral desuetude [state of disuse] into which we believe the professions – medicine, law, even the ministry – have fallen is the consequence of ethical claims without a moral philosophy on which to ground them.”

“Moral arguments based on utility, cost-benefit analysis, contract law, economic restraints, unbridled individualism are all symptoms of ‘moral malaise’,” they add.

Utilitarianism has indeed become the new orthodoxy in biomedical ethics.

“All [leading] bioethicists,” writes Anne Maclean, the perceptive critic of bioethics, accept “some version of utilitarianism”. University of Cambridge Law Professor John Keown agrees. In an interview, he asserts that “in modern bioethics, nothing is, in itself, either valuable or inviolable, except utility”.

Ethicists must therefore shoulder some responsibility for the erosion of moral acumen and for the betrayal of medicine’s noblest ideals.

Theologian Richard John Neuhaus put it starkly: “Thousands of ethicists and bioethicists, as they are called, professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable, until it is finally established as the unexceptional.”

We see this happening in so many areas in biomedical ethics, from stem cell research to gene therapy, and from the criteria for ascertaining death to the hydration of PVS patients. We also see this in the debate surrounding PAS and euthanasia.

For example, Peter Singer and utilitarian ethicists like him are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to euthanasia.

Singer envisions an ideal world where all terminally-ill patients would be routinely euthanised. He writes: “Perhaps one day it will be possible to treat all terminally-ill and incurable patients in such a way that no one requests euthanasia and the subject becomes a non-issue; but this is now just a utopian ideal, and no reason at all to deny euthanasia to those who must live and die in far less comfortable conditions.”

For the Christian, medicine is a gift of God, the outworking of His common grace in this fallen world. The true goal of medicine is always to help and to heal, never to harm or to kill.

The utilitarian calculus that is so pervasive in the practice of modern health care is not only alien to the character of medicine. It has also seriously undermined and subverted medicine’s true and highest purpose.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

God is Love

May 2017 Credo

In 1 John 4:8, we find the briefest but most profound description of God: ‘God is love’. Christian philosophers and theologians have long pointed out that the message that God is love is one that is totally new and unheard of in any culture or religious system. This idea cannot be harmonised with the Absolute of Plato, the Brahma of Hinduism and the Allah of Islam.

This has prompted theologians like Emil Brunner to assert in his Dogmatics that ‘God is love’ ‘is the most daring statement that has ever been made in human language’.

In God’s dealings with Israel recorded in the pages of the OT, God’s love is made manifest again and again in his faithfulness to his chosen people, despite their unfaithfulness towards him.

Thus Brunner could write: ‘God’s faithfulness to his unfaithful people springs out of an incomprehensible love, for which the “foolish” love of Hosea for his unfaithful wife is both the most daring parable of the love of God and also one which is chosen by God himself’.

In the NT the love of God is demonstrated supremely in Jesus Christ. The oft-quoted verse from the Gospel of John shows the extent of the divine love: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (Jn 3:16).

It is important to note that God’s love is neither only lavished nor dependent on his creatures. To say that God is love is to underscore the fact that love is what God immutably and eternally is. Put differently, God’s love is not dependent or contingent upon there being creatures for him to love.

This means that in the eternal God there is that mutual self-giving that is love. This reminds us of just how important the doctrine of the Trinity is to our understanding and conception of God. Because the one God is Being-in-communion, the koinonia and mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is in the eternal life of the Trinity a love that is free, total and unconditional.

However, to say that in the triune God there is the mutual self-giving that is love is not to endorse the idea that God loves himself. Theologians like John Frame, for example, understand divine love as ‘God’s self-love’. There are attendant dangers in conceiving of divine love in this way.

Although in human experience, love is somehow always tainted with self-centredness, we must be careful never to project this onto God. To speak of the divine love as ‘God’s self-love’ is to suggest that God is in some sense self-centred. It is to suggest that God’s love is not directed at another, but is instead turned inward towards himself.

Put differently, to speak of the divine love in this way is to already push the Trinity into the background and to conceive of God – however unreflexively and non-deliberately – as a monad.

Thus, Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly asserts in the first volume of his three-volume systematics that we must oppose ‘the statement that God is he who eternally loves himself’. Because the one God is triune – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – our understanding of divine love must be understood in light of the eternal relationship of the three persons.

Thus, we should not conceive of God as loving himself eternally. We must say instead, with Pannenberg, that ‘from all eternity the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit loves the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father’.

However, even the concept of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Godhead in each other (perichoresis) poses some dangers. Perichoresis should not lead us to think that the one loves the other only because he sees himself in the other.

Pannenberg explains: ‘If, however, the one loves self in the other instead of loving the other as other, then love falls short of the full self-giving which is the condition that the one who loves be given self afresh in the responsive love of the one who is loved’.

God is love. This means, as we have seen, that God’s very nature is love. This further means that God loves not because he has to answer to a law outside of himself. As Ron Highfield has put it so profoundly, ‘[God] is completely free and totally himself in his action’.

Finally, it must be pointed out that the God who is love is also holy. The divine love that the Bible refers to is the love of the God who is holy. But in the same way, the holiness about which Scripture speaks is that of the God who is love.

Some theologians are uneasy with placing holiness and love so closely together. This is because holiness suggests distance, while love creates koinonia. Holiness signifies glory and sovereignty, while love has to do with surrender, sacrifice and selflessness.

So great is the perceived contrast between holiness and love that theologians like Jack Cottrell ask: ‘How can God fulfil the requirements of both love and holiness towards sinners at the same time?’ Convinced that this is almost impossible, Cottrell argues that before the fall, the two attributes were in ‘perfect harmony’. But the fall has placed them ‘in a state of tension and opposition’.

But to think of God in this way is to over-anthropomorphize him – it is to impose human limitations on him. Just as nothing outside of God or other than him can determine or direct his love, so no contingent reality can compromise his holiness.

God is eternally and unchangeably holy love. There is no dilemma, no tension in God.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

 

Lebensunwertes Leben

May 2017 Pulse

In his 1983 article published in Pediatrics, the controversial Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer argues unabashedly that nonhuman animals have greater morally significance than a seriously deformed or disabled human infant.

‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can be considered morally significant’, he writes.

Preferential treatment is extended to the disabled infant, he argues – again quite unapologetically – not because of some intrinsic worth it possesses but simply because it is a member of the species homo sapiens, an approach he obviously disapproves of.

In the second edition of his influential book, Practical Ethics (1993) Singer sees people with severe disabilities quite categorically as having ‘a life not worth living’.

Singer’s cruel utilitarianism chillingly reminds us of the dehumanising eugenics of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s that saw the extermination of certain segments of the population, guided by a similar philosophy – that some human lives can be said to be Lebensunwertes Leben (‘life unworthy of life’).

The killing of disabled people, especially newborns, is a practice that can be traced to antiquity. Despite their indubitable brilliance and enduring influence that can still be discerned in a wide range of topics today – from politics to beauty – the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle never prohibited or even called to question the practice, common in classical antiquity, of killing defective babies by exposure.

The Christian writer Miniculis Felix gives us a stark glimpse of the prevalence of infanticide in Greco-Roman society in Octavius where he writes – in a justifiably condemnatory tone – that ‘newly begotten sons [are] at times exposed to wild beasts and birds, or dispatched by the violent death of strangulation …’

In fact, as Darrell Amnundsen has clearly shown, ‘the care of defective newborns simply was not a medical concern in classical antiquity’. Consequently, no law existed in antiquity against the killing of such babies.

The early Christians of course rejected and opposed this practice because according to the Scriptures all human beings without exceptions are created in the image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26-27) and must therefore be valued and protected. This includes the young, the old, the vulnerable and the disabled.

The early Christians therefore extended care to the poor, the sick, the marginalised and the disabled in ways that amazed the society of the time. So counter-cultural were they in showing compassion to the people that society had marginalised and rejected that the early Christians were often described as ‘the third race’.

The early Christians would pick up the infants that were left to die on the streets, in drains or in specially designated pits for unwanted children. They would either care for these children as their own or place them in the orphanages they ran.

Thus, unlike the most influential voices of the ancient Greco-Roman world that recommended with impunity the killing of deformed children (Cicero, De Ligibus, 3.8) and the drowning of ‘children who are at birth weakly and abnormal’ (Seneca, De Ira 1.15), Christians roundly condemn such practices as immoral.

Perhaps the clearest Christian voice in antiquity that protested against such inhumanity is that of Lactantius, who in his Divine Institutes writes: ‘Therefore when God forbids killing, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. Let no one, then, think that it is to be conceded even that newly born children may be done away with, an especially great impiety! God breathes souls into them for life, not for death’.

In the darkest period of the history of modern Europe, a young pastor-theologian spoke with inimitable clarity and unparalleled courage against the evil eugenic projects of the Führer that were responsible for the mutilation and murder of untold numbers of Jews and people with disabilities.

In his unfinished book, Ethics published shortly after his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the utilitarian principle which demeans human life and violates its God-given dignity: ‘Life created and preserved by God possesses an inherent right, completely independent of social utility … There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable’.

Bonhoeffer warns of what he called ‘the aristocratic philosophy of life which glorified strength and power and violence as the ultimate ideals of humanity’.

This warning, sounded in the last century, has not lost its relevance and urgency in the present. In fact, we may say that in the wake of the current myth of human perfectability inspired by the bewildering advances in bio- medicine and technology, this warning has taken on a pertinence and currency that Bonhoeffer could not have possibly imagined.

While the Christian Faith rejects the morbid glorification of weakness (which unfortunately can be discerned in some recent discussions about disability – but that’s another story!), with its radical concept of the suffering God, it does suggest another way of looking at and understanding weakness that is truly redemptive.

And it is this way of looking at the other that has led Christians like Lactantius in the third century and Bonhoeffer in the twentieth to speak out against the manifest atrocities of their day and to advocate an ethic of love that regards even the most vulnerable and disabled members of their societies as bearers of the divine image, whose lives must be cherished and protected and whose dignity should never be violated.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Pop Music, Pragmatism, and Christianity

May 2017 Feature

In February 2016, Singapore’s Catholic archbishop Goh urged his fellow Catholics to differentiate “pseudo arts” from “authentic arts that lead us to God.” The criticism was directed toward the “Queen of Pop”, Madonna.

In everyday discourse, the term popular music can generally be described as types of music of lower complexity than art music, having wide appeal, and ready to be enjoyed by large numbers of musically uneducated people rather than only by a certain élite. Its identifying elements can include the use of simple melodic tunes and repeated choruses.

How should Christians view and evaluate pop music along with the culture it spawns?

In order to understand the phenomena of popular art, we must understand a certain philosophical background that has helped these phenomena to flourish, that is, the philosophy of pragmatism.

According to the pragmatist philosopher Dewey, the special function of art lies above all in the enhancement of human immediate experience. The supremacy of the aesthetic is that art can be immediately enjoyed. The final standard in pragmatism is not truth but experience.

Pragmatism criticizes the modern conception of art that has detached art from real life and send it to a separate realm like the concert hall and museum. Instead of associating aesthetic experience with normal processes of living, art has been compartmentalized in an élite realm accessible only for certain people.

Dewey disapproves such elitist tradition and want to bring art back in everydayness. He therefore rejects the dualism of high versus popular culture by insisting on the fundamental continuity instead.

According to pragmatism, the so-called ‘high’ art music performed in the concert halls (and in some traditional churches!) has removed art from human lives. Pragmatist aesthetics therefore privileges art experience over the art object. The way to this enhanced art experience is through popular art.

We can appreciate Dewey’s genuine concern about the elitist tradition. Indeed, the Bible does not advocate elitism but opts for universal inclusion. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” We also appreciate Dewey’s effort to bring art back in everydayness.

However, there are serious difficulties in the pragmatist solution of popular art viewed from the Christian perspective.

First, the immediacy of aesthetic experience as the ultimate goal of art is highly problematic when viewed from biblical perspective. Christianity is not an immediate (read: instant) way of life. There is no easy and convenient truth without a long process of learning and struggling.

If we agree that there is a strong relation between the kind of art that we consume and our spirituality, then one of the dangers of popular music lies precisely in its immediacy and instantness. The unformed life is not worth living. Popular music tends to produce instant (pseudo) spirituality.

Secondly, the strong emphasis on experience at the expense of truth is hardly compatible with the biblical view. Biblically speaking, there is no truly satisfying experience apart from truth.

Popular music cares little for its content since it aims primarily for enhanced experience (of feeling good, for instance). This kind of experience, however, imprisons humans in subtle addiction.

On the contrary, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

The Swiss reformer Zwingli related the idea of Christian freedom and true happiness when he said, “Truth wears a happy face.” Happy experience cannot be separated from truth.

Thirdly, due to its goal to bring music to large numbers of listeners with little or no musical training, popular music frequently, if not always, displays lack of depth and along with it, of deep quality.

Any complex music is suspected of succumbing to the elitist tradition. The absoluteness of simplicity, however, can be considered as a denial of growing and becoming mature seen from the biblical perspective. The celebration of simplicity that avoids the process of growing can easily lead to the celebration of triviality and naïveness.

The Bible, on the contrary, teaches humans to give up childish ways to become an adult and mature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:14).

Fourthly, the problem of sharing the complex art and music, the so-called ‘high’ art, is not resolved by replacing them with easy-to-listen music. If that were the case, then there would have been no incarnation. Replacing high Christology with low Christology is never an orthodox evangelical way of settling the problem.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christianity commits to believe in the incarnation of the Most High. Pragmatism teaches us to discard everything high coming from the idealistic realm while replacing it with popular concrete experience.

Christianity celebrates not only the possibility but also the certainty of the Logos that has become flesh. Christianity concurs with pragmatist criticism of Platonic idealism but comes up with different solution.

If we believe in the way of incarnation, then we don’t have to replace the ‘high’ with the ‘low’ but to teach and edify our children and ourselves so that we can grow from childhood to adulthood.

The reformers believed in the power of catechism. Luther translated the Bible into German. Zwingli applied the university method of teaching in his Sunday service expository preaching, that is, chapter by chapter of the Gospel. He did not oversimplify the life of Christ through popular preaching; rather, he edified his congregation in the way theological students were taught at the university.

Catechism is a Christian protest against the pragmatist easy solution that often leads to uneducatedness and ignorance. Calvin famously stated, “We know that where there is no understanding, there is certainly no edification.”

We need not only theological catechism but also catechism on good Christian arts and music. May God help us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.



Rev. Billy Kristanto is the Academic Dean of International Reformed Evangelical Seminary Jakarta and a part time lecturer at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. He received a doctorate of philosophy in musicology and a doctorate in theology Systematic Theology both from Heidelberg University. He lives in Singapore since 2002 with his Family.